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Purple bamboo

January 24, 2013

“Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost” — (Dante, Inferno)

THE early morning mist hangs heavy. Seemingly light and ephemeral, it smothers the ground — and hangs heavy on the soul too. No one knows when it will lift its burden. Perhaps later in the day? Perhaps later in the week?

While Islamabad is unquestioningly making the transition to spring, like the sun, when that spring will emerge is only for fools and pundits to judge. One can be optimistic like Kahlil Gibran that “In the heart of each winter’s day, lies a quivering spring”. But it has taken many winters for that spring to reveal itself. (Then again, the mist may not be a precursor to a sunshine-filled day at all. It could be a metaphor, as in Akira Kurosawa‘s brilliant Throne of Blood, the Japanese celluloid version of Macbeth, for losing our way; losing our moral compass.)

The events of the past few weeks, indeed even longer, have left me melancholic and confused. (Hence, the dark, brooding and disjointed nature of my thoughts in this piece.) Are we on the cusp of a stronger institutional base, with a fiery media, an independent chief justice, and a vibrant, social media-driven civil society strengthening the nation’s foundations? Or are we witnessing the vanquishing of the people, the victory of big money, corruption and entrenched vested interest, with only the outward ‘form’ of change?

What needs to happen for us to make a successful transition to a society based on the ‘rule of law’, where a measure of social justice prevails? Several readers of my previous column, Why nations fail, asked searching questions — questions to which I cannot even pretend to have answers for. The most pertinent was: who will change the system when ‘insiders’ have no incentive to change the status quo?

Last February, I wrote the following lines in my column titled System of spoils:

“It should be obvious that such widespread and pervasive rent-seeking on such brazen display can only thrive in the absence of strong institutions (and the presence of a large public sector). It is not surprising therefore that the ecosystem of weak and atrophying institutions serves the interests of Pakistan’s elites very well.

“…Compounding the sense of pessimism on this front, it is unclear what incentive corrupt ‘insiders’ have to change the status quo when they benefit so directly and so profusely from it. While there are incipient signs of hope in the appearance of a developing ‘middle-class consensus’, and the emergence of an assertive and activist superior judiciary, these successes can prove transient. The party that purports to represent the middle classes (MQM) is already co-opted by the ‘system’ and has been enjoying its forbidden fruits for a decade. …it is said big ‘chiefs’ are compromised to the hilt too.”

The co-option by ‘the system’ of large segments of the population has its unfortunate corollary: the absence of a genuine reform constituency, even in the middle class, and even in the media. The appearance of leading columnists and TV anchors in government-sponsored ads against hefty payments — or the practice of the government doling out plots in Islamabad to journalists — are all brazen examples of influential segments of the media selling their soul for the right price. The competition for public-sector ads, or the influence-peddling by owners of media houses to get special tax exemptions and waivers, are unfortunate evidence of how truly ‘independent’ the media is.

Co-option on such a large scale is prevalent across much of South Asia, with governments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives all practising the same model of state control to varying degrees. India appears to be an exception, to the extent that its size ensures that such large-scale co-option is not feasible. In addition, it has the most relatively robust institutional framework in South Asia, thanks in large part to the vision of its founding fathers.

While I am no historian, my sense is that the coming to being of the Magna Carta that laid the foundation for eventual parliamentary democracy in the UK, was the result of conflict-resolution among equals — the barons on one side, and the king on the other. It made sense for the king to sue for peace and become less ‘extractive’ because the cost of extraction had risen in proportion to the military strength of the other side. (The other route to strong institutions and the ‘rule of law’ is enlightened self-interest — with few contemporary or historical examples.)

In this context, ‘people’s power’ becomes a valid doctrine, when sham democracies fail to provide for even the most basic of their constituents’ aspirations. While the Philippines under Marcos, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, and more recently Egypt and Tunisia under Mubarak and Ben Ali, have all been ‘democracies’ on paper, to the extent of holding of elections, the capture of the ruling elites of all constitutional mechanisms for their replacement — as well as of all resources — left the people only one choice. Hence, a predatory state ruled by an ‘extractive’ elite, sows the seeds of its own eventual demise by encouraging people’s power to take to the streets, or by making civil war more likely.

Coming to our own display of ‘people’s power’, judging by the bursting girths of the full range of Pakistan’s elected kleptocrats on display in the drama in Islamabad, all beaming and smiling after successfully ‘saving the system’, one can hazard a safe guess as to who is benefiting from democracy at the moment — and it’s not the hungry, unemployed, load-shed masses of Pakistan.

“’And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? / Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” / He chortled in his joy.’

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.